Article

How Pharmaceutical Pollution Affects Aquatic Life

Pharmaceutical pollution affects aquatic organisms (credit: Alina Kruk on Shutterstock)
Pharmaceutical pollution affects aquatic organisms (credit: Alina Kruk on Shutterstock)

The first type of pollution that comes to your mind when thinking of environmental pollution may be plastic pollution. Or air pollution. Did you think of pharmaceutical pollution? Probably not as this type of pollution is overlooked by many people. Pharmaceuticals are chemicals such as medications, hormones, antibiotics, and personal hygiene products used in medicine for many purposes, including the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of diseases. These chemicals cause pharmaceutical pollution when they leak into the environment. They can enter the environment through a variety of routes, such as excretion in the form of urine and feces, untreated pharmaceutical waste, and improper disposal of wastewater from the pharmaceutical sector. While many are unaware of this type of pollution, it is already a global problem. This is a result of our medication overuse and the resulting higher concentrations of these substances in water bodies. These can be extremely dangerous even in low quantities in water, as low as nanograms to micrograms per liter (also known as parts per billion, or ppb). But critically, these substances are difficult for water treatment facilities to remove from water and can therefore affect aquatic life. This is how: Painkillers The first type of pharmaceutical that affects aquatic life is painkillers. Some painkillers only relieve pain – called analgesics – while other painkillers also reduce inflammation and lower fever – called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and aspirin. They are often used; over 35 million individuals globally take them daily. And they are frequently coupled with antibiotics for animals to treat joint problems and relieve pain, inflammation, and fever. Analgesics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines pose a major risk to aquatic life when they leak into aquatic environments. For example, diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicine, contains chemicals that disrupt Mediterranean mussels’ estrogen hormones and their defense against oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is an imbalance between the amount of harmful chemicals in cells and tissue and the body's capacity to detoxify these chemicals. Diclofenac can also disrupt other biological processes such as hatch and reproductive processes, and cause anomalies in the heart and blood vessels.
Mediterranean Mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis; credit: A. Mertens on Shutterstock)
Mediterranean Mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis; credit: A. Mertens on Shutterstock)

Beta-blockers The second type of pharmaceutical that affects aquatic life is β-blockers or beta-blockers. Beta-blockers prevent the release of noradrenaline and adrenaline hormones. As these stress hormones cause the heart to beat faster, beta-blockers slow down the heartbeat and cause the heart to pound less strongly. They are frequently used to manage blood pressure, and treat heart failure, irregular heart rhythms, and chest pain caused by decreased blood supply to the heart. Even minute concentrations of beta-blockers are toxic to aquatic life. For instance, a concentration of 3 to 6,167 ng/L (0.003 to 6.167 ppb) already impairs neurological and reproductive health. They can also result in development issues in aquatic organisms, and even cause fish and green algae to die. Antibiotics The third type of pharmaceutical that affects aquatic life is antibiotics. Antibiotics is medication used to treat bacterial infections in humans and animals. The antibiotics concentration in aquatic environments differs between water bodies:
Antibiotics concentrations differ between water bodies. The concentration range is shown for wastewater (left), drinking water (middle), and river water (right; © Dr. Erlijn van Genuchten)
Antibiotics concentrations differ between water bodies. The concentration range is shown for wastewater (left), drinking water (middle), and river water (right; © Dr. Erlijn van Genuchten)

Because antibiotics are long-lasting, may still have antibiotical effects, and are easily absorbed by ecosystems, and can therefore affect aquatic life for a long time, their accidental release into the environment is a serious problem. Even at low concentrations, they are poisonous, interfere with aquatic plants' ability to perform photosynthesis, and cause oxidative stress. Also, microorganisms are growing resistant to various antibacterial agents. This is concerning as well, as their resistance reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics in people and might lead to a strong rise in mortality in the near future. Antiretrovirals The fourth type of pharmaceutical that affects aquatic life is antiretrovirals. Antiretroviral drugs are used to treat human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infections. If an HIV infection remains untreated, it can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Antiretrovirals are not closely monitored in wastewater. This means that the medication can easily contaminate drinking water sources. Here, they are only moderately toxic, but as they build up in aquatic life can cause a lot of damage over time. Anticancer drugs The fifth type of pharmaceutical that affects aquatic life is anticancer drugs. Anticancer drugs are used to kill rapidly growing cells, such as tumor cells. But because these medications don't discriminate between healthy and cancerous cells, they also harm healthy cells. This can for example cause birth abnormalities, damaged and mutated genes, and damaged cells. Because anticancer drugs can kill cells and change DNA, they can also harm aquatic organisms. For instance, long-term exposure over two generations to anticancer medications changes the liver and kidney tissues of zebrafish and their DNA.
Zebrafish (Danio rerio; credit: boban_nz on Shutterstock)
Zebrafish (Danio rerio; credit: boban_nz on Shutterstock)

Conclusion Because pharmaceuticals change biological processes and structures, they can negatively impact aquatic creatures in a variety of ways, already at low concentrations. For instance, they can alter hormone levels in organisms, result in heart and blood vessel anomalies, disrupt behavior, and have an impact on reproductive processes. They can also result in developmental issues and the death of aquatic organisms. As these concentrations and their detrimental effects are rising at the moment due to the overuse of medications, it is important to take action. We can for example limit pharmaceutical pollution by • using as few medicines as possible, • disposing of medicines properly, • preferring natural over synthetic drugs whenever possible, and • picking up litter, especially medicines, and putting it in a bin.
About the author Dr. Erlijn van Genuchten is a an internationally recognized environmental sustainability expert. She is a science communicator, helpings scientists in the fields of nature and sustainability increase the outreach of their results and allowing us all to put scientific insights into practice and contribute to a sustainable future. Erlijn has inspired thousands of people around the world — for example — by supporting the United Nations with her expertise, her book A Guide to A Healthier Planet published by Springer Nature, and her posts on social media.
  • Star Jeffree

    6 d

    Pharmaceutical pollution is indeed a significant environmental concern, often overlooked compared to more visible forms of pollution like plastic or air pollution https://thatsnotmyneighbor.org/

    1
    • Chris Ndungu

      10 w

      This is a crucial message that we have gotten. it is high time these companies to know the dangers they are coursing to the aquatic life. They should stop disposing those pollutants with immediate effect.

      1
      • johnte ndeto

        10 w

        Makes alot of sense to me

        3
        • Patrick Kiash

          11 w

          Very important message.

          3
          • Tabitha Kimani

            11 w

            Dr. Erlijn van, thank you for always informing the world from a very professional perspective.

            1
            • Munene Mugambi

              11 w

              Pharmaceutical companies pollute a lot and legislation is required to curb this

              1
              • Gorffly mokua

                11 w

                The impact of pharmaceutical pollution on aquatic life is a concerning issue that requires greater attention and action.

                5
                • Kevin

                  11 w

                  Beautiful read

                  2
                  • winnie nguru

                    11 w

                    This is so insightful. Thank you for sharing

                    3
                    • Rukia Ahmed Abdi

                      11 w

                      Pharmaceutical pollution, often overlooked, poses a significant threat to aquatic life and ecosystems. Medications, including painkillers, beta-blockers, antibiotics, antiretrovirals, and anticancer drugs, enter the environment through various routes, such as urine and feces, untreated waste, and improper disposal.

                      2
                      • Esther Wanjiku

                        11 w

                        Such amazing insights

                        9
                        • Marine Stephan

                          11 w

                          I never thought about it, thanks for sharing!

                          9
                          Welcome, let's solve the climate crisis together
                          Post youtube preview with preloading
                          youtube overlay

                          Write or agree to climate reviews to make businesses and world leaders act. It’s easy and it works.

                          Write a climate review

                          Voice your opinion on how businesses and organizations impact the climate.
                          0 trees planted

                          One tree is planted for every climate review written to an organization that is Open for Climate Dialogue™.

                          Download the app

                          We plant a tree for every new user.

                          AppleAndroid